For Delaware County residents looking to aid the ailing honeybee population, there’s no need to be hive-minded.
“I like to say one of my jobs is to talk people out of becoming beekeepers,” said Dave Noble, apiarist at Stratford Ecological Center in Delaware Township. “The world doesn’t necessarily need more beekeepers. You do need better beekeepers.”
Noble said he often receives inquiries from people interested in doing their part to “save the bees,” which have been the focus of a number of mournful documentaries and news stories over the past decade. According to a survey by the nonprofit Bee Informed Partnership, beekeepers in the U.S. reported losing 44 percent of their honeybee colonies between April 2015 and April 2016.
Several factors – from climate change to parasites and pesticides – have been pitched as possible causes of collapsing colonies. Scientists who study bees have not come to a consensus on which factors are the primary drivers of the phenomenon.A closer look THE ISSUE: Honeybees are considered crucial to agriculture, but populations are declining nationwide, and science doesn’t know why.
WHY IT MATTERS: Delaware County residents who want to start their own beehives may run into hurdles – from governmental regulations to the amount of time required to care for them – but local beekeepers say the best ways to help the bee population are to buy local honey and plant bee-friendly trees and flowers.
In any case, bees are vital to human agriculture; dozens of fruits and vegetables, from cranberries and asparagus to watermelons, rely on pollination from bees, as do many nuts, fibers and the hay that sustains farm animals. In addition, the honey produced by bees is worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
How to help
Noble said people can make life easier for bees in several ways, not all of which involve installing a hive in the backyard. That’s good news for Delaware County residents, many of whom live in communities where beekeeping is heavily restricted.
Powell’s zoning code, for instance, bars the agricultural use of animals – including bees – on any property smaller than 5 acres.
Powell Development Director Dave Betz said no resident has asked him about urban beekeeping in his 25 years with the city.
Dave Efland, the city of Delaware’s planning and community development director, said via email beekeeping is never mentioned by name in the city’s zoning code, but it likely would be allowed in property zoned Agricultural District. A city ordinance allows people to request temporary-use permits to keep small animals such as guinea pigs and rabbits for agricultural shows, but bees are not listed as acceptable livestock.
Efland said he thinks the issue rarely comes up at city hall because “many, if not most” homeowners associations in Delaware bar the activity.
Orange Township’s zoning code lists beekeeping as a permitted use of land in areas zoned Farm Residential District, but the property must be at least 5 acres. Township spokeswoman Amanda Sheterom said residents whose properties do not meet those requirements could ask for a variance to keep bees, but there’s no guarantee township officials would approve.
Berlin Township also allows residents to raise bees in properties zoned Farm Residential District.
Rod Pritchard, president of the Central Ohio Beekeepers Association, said each municipality can make its own decisions regarding beekeeping. He said Columbus and Franklin County as a whole are especially “bee-friendly.”
Pritchard said he also suspects residents prohibited by zoning rules from raising bees often disregard the letter of the law with little consequence.
“A lot of communities just ignore it,” he said. “They don’t have the bee police going out and looking for them.”
Pritchard said he expects more communities to craft specific rules for keeping bees in residential areas going forward as it becomes more commonplace.
Noble said people who can’t keep bees still can make a difference by working with local and state officials to make sure suitable habitats for bees are planted and preserved. He said residents often think to plant flowers, but adding trees favored by bees – such as the American basswood – can be an even bigger boon.
“A single tree can produce so much nectar and so much pollen,” he said.
Noble also offered a tasty solution for residents barred from beekeeping.
“Honestly, the best thing you can do to help bees is to buy local honey from local beekeepers so they can afford to continue beekeeping,” he said. “And don’t complain about the prices.”
Noble said demand for cheap honey leads to large-scale producers creating unnaturally immense hives. He said disease and parasites can spread quickly through such environments.
Do your homework
Noble and Pritchard had the same advice for people who can’t resist the urge to start their own hive: get some hands-on experience first.
“The first thing we tell people to do is to go to a beekeeping school,” Pritchard said.
About 150 students go through the Central Ohio Beekeeping Association’s classes every year at Ohio State University, Pritchard said. Noble said the association has about 500 members, some of whom live in Delaware County.
Noble said more than a dozen go through the beekeeping apprenticeship program at Stratford Ecological Center annually.
He said books and websites can offer useful information, but prospective beekeepers should come face to face with bees before building habitats in their backyards.
“You can have all the knowledge in the world, but when you open up that box, your lizard brain kicks in because there are flying, stinging insects all around you,” he said.
Noble said he thinks people who spend more time with bees start to view them less as “honey-production factories” and more as livestock. He said they also begin to realize honeybees have an “undeserved reputation for being nasty” that he blames largely on other stinging insects.
Noble said he recommends prospective hobbyists also consider whether they have the time to take up beekeeping. He said beekeepers should spend at least 30 minutes checking on each hive every 10-14 days.
While the headlines about bees often are bleak, Noble said he thinks a brighter future could be around the corner. He said big, somewhat painful changes for commercial beekeepers – such as switching to smaller-scale production – could be a major part of the answer.
“(The industry’s) hives are too big. We keep them too big because we want those high (yields of honey),” he said.
For more information about the Central Ohio Beekeeping Association, visit centralohiobeekeepers.org. For more information on Stratford Ecological Center’s beekeeping programs, visit www.stratfordecologicalcenter.org/apiarybees.